Talented volleyball field on tap

Jeff Barthel

The NCAA volleyball tournament starts this weekend with Minnesota playing host to the first two rounds of the Long Beach regional.

The 17th-ranked Gophers (22-10) will take on the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (23-10) on Friday night. The start time will depend on the length of a 5 p.m. match between No. 20 University of California-Santa Barbara (19-8) and 16th-ranked Northern Iowa (27-5).

The winner of each match will advance to a 7 p.m. Saturday match for the chance to move on to the Sweet 16.

Minnesota

The Gophers enter the tournament after taking second place in the Big Ten this season.

Minnesota is led by the newly crowned 2003 Big Ten Player of the Year Cassie Busse. The senior opposite hitter leads the Gophers in kills (523), hitting percentage (.299) and service aces (51).

Minnesota’s defense is lead by two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Paula Gentil. The 5-foot-9-inch libero leads Minnesota in digs (559). Minnesota led the Big Ten with 1,973 team digs.

Also leading the Gophers defense is Meredith Nelson. The 6-foot-3-inch Big Ten All-Freshman player has a team-high 137 blocks.

Minnesota has faced Green Bay three times before – the last match was a 3-2 Gophers victory Nov. 5, 2001.

Wisconsin-Green Bay

The Phoenix will be making their first trip to the NCAA tournament. They earned the bid by winning the Horizon League title with a 3-2 victory over the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Nov. 23.

Green Bay is led by the Horizon League assist leader, Leslie Kuhn. The junior setter from Juneau, Wis., has 1,681 assists this season.

Janelle Tomlinson, a 6-foot-1-inch opposite hitter, leads UWGB with 614 kills. Jessie Theys – a senior middle blocker – has 469 kills. Theys also has a team-leading .307 hitting percentage.

The Phoenix led their conference in kills with 2,068.

UC-Santa Barbara

UC-Santa Barbara is one of four teams in NCAA volleyball history to have been selected into all 23 NCAA tournaments.

The Gauchos come into the tournament fresh off a 3-0 sweep of Arizona (17-14) – the team that

eliminated Minnesota from tournament play last season.

Leading the Gauchos is 6-foot-3-inch middle blocker Olivia Waldowski. The redshirt freshman led UCSB – and the Big West conference – with a .380 hitting percentage. Waldowski also led the Gauchos in services aces (38).

Senior Megan Backshire has knocked down 321 kills and posted a .364 hitting percentage this season. The 6-foot sophomore middle blocker ranks second for UCSB in both categories.

The Gauchos’ match against Northern Iowa will be the first match between the two teams.

Northern Iowa

The Panthers were invited to this year’s tournament after winning the Missouri Valley Conference.

Northern Iowa is lead by MVC tournament MVP Molly O’Brien. The senior middle blocker leads the Panthers with 445 kills and 171 blocks.

The team led the MVC with 1,877 kills. The Panthers also had a conference-high .281 hitting

percentage.

Northern Iowa is an annual Gophers opponent. Minnesota defeated the Panthers earlier this season – a 3-1 victory Sept. 17.